Having left the Royal Air Force last year, I started my new job with Northern Rail and this story relates to a chance encounter, meeting the grandson of a Sgt William (Bill) Radcliffe (FE). Like all good mess rooms and crew rooms there is a healthy degree of banter, wit and groaning and my new job was no exception making it a great place to absorb the railway and learn the odd snippet – even as a new boy of 46 years of age. “Have a chat with Dave he was in the air force” came the shout. Here we go I thought – do you know Bloggs – he was in the air force? Now I know the RAF is getting smaller and by the latest count, you can get the entire force into St Mary’s Stadium, but I knew the answer to this one, or so I thought. A fellow train driver, Mr Bill Bailey introduced himself and starting asking me about Flight Engineers and more particularly his grandfather. He promptly produced the well-known book Bomber Boys written by Kevin Wilson, pointing to the cover photo of a bomber command crew and a certain Sergeant Flight Engineer – William Radcliffe alongside George “Johnny” Johnson, Don MacLean, Ron Batson, Joe McCarthy and Len Eaton.
The story went that Bill’s mother Dorothy was only 7 years old when her father died in a tragic accident in 1952 having survived two operational tours throughout World War Two and sadly she knew little of his wartime service. Dorothy had seen the BBMF Lancaster fly before and was present when “Vera” KB726 visited these shores in the summer of 2014, yet one of her lifetime wishes was still to be realised. She had never had the opportunity to clamber aboard and see the inside of a Lancaster bomber, the place where her young father had spent over 800 flying hours as “Big Joe McCarthy’s” Flight Engineer.
This human interest story had me hooked and now the challenge was on to help the daughter of a decorated fellow flight engineer and more importantly, the honour to host his extended family.
On Monday the 13th April we had arranged to meet the family in the visitors car park of BBMF. Bill had travelled with his mother Dorothy and his three sisters; Angela, Jacqueline and Juliette. Flt Lt Jim Stokes had agreed to set up the visit and host the party, which included Nick Nicholls, Brian May and myself from the association.
Starting with the obligatory cuppa in the crew-room and the privilege of looking through his flying logbook pages, we got to know a little more about the exploits of Bill Radcliffe, his crew and some of the operational missions he had been involved with and most notably, involvement in the Dambusters raids. Their target was the Sorpe Dam, which they had attacked on the night of 16th/17th May 1943.
This sortie became known as the “just one more trip” given that the crew had already completed their first operational tour and with this transfer to 617 Squadron they embarked on their second tour where they were to make history as the crews of the dambusters raids.
As on every other flight there was a “stowaway” on board a certain Mr Chuck Chuck. The small stuffed black and white Panda Bear was tucked into Bill’s flying boot and serving as the crew’s mascot. It obviously did the trick getting them all safely through all their Ops and survives to this day as a family heirloom, doubtless of immeasurable value.
Now for those of you that know Stokesy, he’s certainly never short of a few words but when it comes to BBMF facts and figures we needed Mr Roger Evans a “professional” BBMF visitor host and long-time friend of Brian and his wife, who volunteered to help us out on one of his days off.
Roger was superb. He hosted the family with the perfect degree of reverence, showcasing the aircraft and stories of the visitor centre whilst engaging with the family and hearing Bill Radcliffe’s story – as much as they knew of it.
Whilst taking a break back in the crew-room we were fortunate enough to stumble upon a flying display practice of the Spitfire and Typhoon combo, a fantastic sight spanning a heritage of over 70 years of RAF aviation. Even Brian got excited by the prospect of meeting up with the original Spitfire LFXVI TE311 which used to be RAF Tangmere’s Gate Guardian in 1959 evoking memories of his youth clambering all over her as a kid. The next bit was a little more difficult, Lancaster PA474 was not quite put back together, following its out of season overhaul and we understood that it was very rare to get an inside look at the old girl.
Enter stage left Stokesy!
As only he can do, a quick chat with the ground crew and a raised eyebrow played down with his own inimitable Hoylake charm and he had secured a look inside once we had de-fodded our pockets, God forbid we left anything behind.
This bit was a little emotional, especially for Dorothy, waiting all these years to be able to see her dad’s wartime ‘office’. It was so different to a flying display, being up close, to smell and feel the conditions and of course with none of the hardships such as the terrors of flak and night fighters to contend with. Plenty of photographs were taken to add to their scrapbooks. This included a very special one in which a proud grandson dons his grandfather’s original best blue jacket, flanked by his mother and sisters. The family were delighted with the time spent in the hangar and particularly the knowledge, care and interest shown by our host – well done Roger!
After the hangar visit we were able to spend some time in the visitor centre before heading to Woodhall Spa to see the Dambusters’ Memorial and it was interesting to note the number of crew commemorated who had originated from Canada – the country of Bill Radcliffe’s birth.
Now for those of you that know the area well, we were within striking distance of a rather special hotel so we decided to adjourn, with Bill’s family and take lunch in the Terrace Bar of the Petwood Hotel. Aside from the quality of food and service which was exceptional, the Petwood is home to the original 617 Sqn Officers’ Mess with all of its important history and artefacts. Sure enough, within about 10 minutes the grandchildren soon spotted their grandad on two of the squadron photographs of the era which was a rather nice close to a wonderful day out. In addition one of Dorothy’s daughters, whose partner is a chef, managed to be photographed with ‘The Hairy Bikers’ who coincidentally were lunching at an adjacent table!
(The Petwood is well worth a visit and for those members of the FEAEA, I can confirm that at the time of going to print we have secured the Hotel as our 2016 Formal Dinner Venue, the irony being, it will be held on the anniversary of Sgt Bill Radcliffe’s birth – 24th September).
Now I’m hoping that the story doesn’t end here for Dorothy. Her father died when she was only 7 years of age and she would love to be able to talk to anyone that knew and worked with her father, especially during his wartime years with 97 and 617 Squadrons. As a crew member of Big Joe McCarthy’s crew she would love to be able to meet “Johnny” Johnson and learn anything about her father, perhaps even some of the stuff only another crew member knows.
It was a pleasure and privilege meeting Bill Radcliffe’s family and learning about the life, operations and legacy of a fellow flight engineer. As Chairman of the FEAEA I was honoured and delighted to be able to take part in this very special day, alongside Nick Nicholls and Brian May. Particular praise and thanks must go to Mr Roger Evans and Flt Lt Jim Stokes who went the extra mile to remember our “Engineer” heritage.
Sgt Bill Radcliffe was a Lancaster Flight Engineer who served with 617 Squadron during the second world war and operated ED825/G on the famous Sorpe Dam bombing raid on 16th/17th May 1943. He was commissioned in November 1943, and awarded the DFC in June 1944.
For more information on Sgt William Radcliffe visit the dam buster blog site;
Dave Kildea (FE Retired)